Watson's old school chum Julian Emery ("Stinky") stops by for a visit. When asked about the bandage on his head, Stinky explains that someone broke into his house and bonked him on his head. He thinks it's strange that the thief stole a cheap music box rather than the more valuable ones that were in plain sight. Holmes finds this fact intriguing. Holmes and Watson go to Stinky's house and they look over the music boxes. Stinky shows them the music box that he bought at the auction, explaining the it's almost identical to the stolen box. (Apparently the thief got the wrong box!) Holmes immediately suspects cause and effect between Stinky's auction purchase and the robbery. Stinky says that he bought the plain cheap box because of the interesting tune. After hearing it just once, Holmes memorizes the tune.
After Holmes and Watson have left, Julian Emery receives a visit from Hilda Courtney. She's after the music box, of course, and uses her feminine charms on Julian Emery to persuade him to part with the box. She has nearly succeeded when her chauffer, Hamid, sees Emery touching her, and in a jealous rage Hamid throws a knife at Emery, killing him.
Holmes joins the police investigating the murder of Watson's old friend. Noticing that the plain music box with the unusual tune is missing, Holmes visits Gaylord's auction house and learns that Emery's music box was one of three identical boxes made by an inmate at Dartmoor Prison. Holmes deduces that somehow the boxes were a form of communication with the inmates friends on the outside. Believing that the people who bought the other two boxes may be in danger, Holmes tracks them down.
At the Kilgour home the "charwoman" answers the door and allows Holmes and Watson to wait for the Kilgours in the living room. She says she must go do the shopping. While waiting, Holmes hears banging in the closet, and finds Kilgour's little girl tied up. He then realizes that he's been duped by the "charwoman"--Hilda Courtney in disguise!
The buyer of the third music box was Evelyn Clifford, the owner of a toy store. When Hilda Courtney and Col. Cavanaugh visit the toy shop, they discover that the music box they seek has been sold--to Sherlock Holmes!
Holmes notes that the tune of the music box from the toy shop is nearly identical to the tune from Emery's music box, and he deduces that the tune is a code of some sort. He seeks the help of former safe cracker Joe Sisto, who plays piano in a pub that is a meeting place for buskers (street artists). Holmes plays the music box tune on the piano. Joe recognizes the tune as "The Swagman" but says that Mr. Holmes isn't playing it exactly right. The music box tunes have slight variations on the "Swagman" tune as it was written.
When Holmes and Watson return to Baker Street, they find their flat has been ransacked. Nothing was stolen, but a cigarette stub was left behind. Holmes stays up all night trying to work out the music box code. The next morning Watson opens the curtains and observes, "Look, Holmes, it's morning." To which Holmes retorts, "Allow me to congratulate you on a brilliant piece of deduction!" Watson provides the clue to solving the music box puzzle when he talks about his childhood piano teacher numbering the piano keys for him. Each note that's a variation on the original tune corresponds to a letter of the alphabet. From the tune from the toy store music box and the tune that Holmes memorized from Emery's music box Holmes is able to figure out two thirds of the message: behind books third shelf secretary dr s
Holmes leaves Scotland Yard in charge of finding the mysterious "Dr. S" and follows up on the clue of the cigarette left in his flat. A woman in a tobacco shop identifies the unusual tobacco that Hilda Courtney buys, and gives Courtney's address to Holmes. It turns out that leaving the cigarette was intentional. Mrs. Courtney had read Holmes's monograph "on the ashes of 140 different varieties of tobacco," and was certain that he wouldn't be able to resist her tobacco lure. Hamid and Cavanaugh handcuff Holmes and take him away to be killed at another location. While in the car, Holmes distracts Cavanaugh and manages to palm the handcuff key. In a garage, Hamid and Cavanaugh hang Holmes from a hook on a ceiling beam, and leave him to die by poison gas. Holmes manages to free himself in time. (Rathbone is doubled by a stunt man in this scene.1)
Meanwhile, Hilda Courtney goes to 221B Baker Street and Watson lets her in. Using the smoke bomb trick she read about in "A Scandal in Bohemia," Mrs. Courtney tricks Watson into revealing where the music box is hidden. When Holmes returns to the flat and hears what happened, he tells Watson he can console himself that at least Mrs. Courtney reads his stories. As Watson tends to Holmes's wounds, he quotes Dr. Samuel Johnson, and the light bulb goes on in Holmes's head.
Dr. Samuel Johnson's house in Gough Square is a museum. Davidson hid the Bank of England plates in Dr. Johnson's secretary. Mrs. Courtney, Cavanaugh and Hamid join a group on a tour of the museum, and stay behind when they spot the secretary. No sooner have they got the plates in their hands, than Sherlock Holmes and the police are there to arrest them.
Although the film was made in Hollywood, the director made an effort to make the studio reproduction as authentic as possible. Roy William Neill obtained a floor plan and photos of the interior of Dr. Johnson's house from a London contact.2
Except for the use of the smoke bomb trick that appeared in "A Scandal in Bohemia," the plot of Dressed to Kill is original, and not based on any of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.
I find the film entertaining. It's not the best one in the series, but not the weakest one, either. Ever since the release of Dressed to Kill critics have been divided over it. Some liked it a lot, others hated it. The New York Times (5/25/46) wrote, "Heightened mystery is added by the fact that the title has nothing to do with the story and, though probably no great loss, [the title] remains inexplicable to the end."
It's also never clearly explained why Davidson was so anxious to tell Hilda Courtney where the Bank of England plates were. Perhaps he was afraid they would be accidentally discovered. However, they seemed to be very well-hidden. In a locked cabinet in a museum, it's not likely they would be found accidentally.
A memorable Sherlock Holmes quote from this film is: "The truth is only arrived at through the painstaking process of eliminating the untrue." This statement sounds very Holmesian, but it doesn't appear in any of the stories. The more familiar quote from the Holmes canon is, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth" (from The Sign of Four).
Watch the trailer for Dressed to Kill:
Note: Dressed to Kill is one of the four Sherlock Holmes films that is in the public domain. That means that anyone can legally produce and sell a DVD of this film. Consequently, it's easy to find cheap DVDs of Dressed to Kill. But these cheap ones are also cheap quality. The links above are for the digitally remastered, high-quality DVDs produced by MPI Home Video. Anything else is a waste of money!